The protector, p.11
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       The Protector, p.11

           Jodi Ellen Malpas
 

  Just get it and go. Don’t look at him.

  I throw my phone inside and turn, finding Jake standing in the kitchen doorway, watching me closely. His deep eyes when they study me this closely always render me incapable of movement.

  “What?” I ask, sounding harsh and stroppy.

  He picks up his bag from the floor, shaking his head. “You’ll wait here until they arrive.”

  “I have things to do!” I argue as he throws his bag over his shoulder and heads for the door.

  “Five minutes, Camille. You can wait for five minutes. Then you’ll never have to do a thing I tell you to do ever again.” He takes the door handle and looks over his shoulder, almost smiling at me, expecting my retort. Which is why I don’t give him one.

  I don’t need to prove myself to anyone, except myself. I have my integrity and independence. I also have an unbearable pain in my heart as I watch him pull the door open. I try to reason with myself, tell myself that I’m being stupid and the only thing that’s making me feel this way is the comfort I don’t want to feel from his presence. That he can protect me. But that isn’t just it.

  Jake takes one last long, hard look at me, then turns to leave, but he gets no farther than two paces, coming to a sudden, abrupt halt. The muscles of his back bunch under his T-shirt, his shoulders high and tense. His bag falls to the floor, and his hand comes round to his back quickly, resting on something. His gun?

  I step back, cautious…and then I hear someone speak. “Is Camille home?”

  My stomach bottoms out.

  Sebastian.

  I start to back away, frightened, but then I panic for a different reason. Shit, Sharp’s going to shoot him!

  I fly toward the door and grab Sharp’s hand, which is halfway to pulling his gun from the back of his jeans. He expertly yanks himself free and swings around, eyes full of dangerous intent, his forehead displaying a sheen of sweat.

  The moment he realizes it’s me, I see his face soften. “It’s my ex-boyfriend!” I rush to explain.

  He freezes, and once I can be sure the information I’ve just given him has sunk into his robot mind, I start to move in front of him, slowly and cautiously, watching him closely. He looks dangerous. Volatile. Good Lord, he looks murderous.

  “Jesus.” Seb’s startled curse pulls my attention away from Sharp. My ex is standing in the corridor, his back pressed to the wall on the far side. His blue eyes are wide and wary, but they are perfectly clear, too.

  It’s been nine months since I’ve seen him. Nine months of sorting myself out. He knows we’re done, that there’s no going back for me. “Why are you here?” I ask, flicking a glance over my shoulder, not liking what I find. Sharp looks positively deadly, his hand still behind his back, ready to pull his gun.

  “How are you, Cam?” Sebastian asks. The super-shorted version of my name, the one only he ever used, brings on an onslaught of flashbacks. My only saving grace is that the flashbacks are of the dark times. It’s the best reminder.

  “I’m good.” I give Sebastian an even face to match my even answer. I’m good, without you! While in rehab, he gave me regular updates in long, detailed e-mails. I chose not to respond, and after the first two weeks, I stopped reading them altogether. They only hindered my own recovery. He was full of remorse. He always was. He will not make me weak again. He won’t have that hold over me.

  Flicking a look past me, Seb weighs up the mountain of lean muscle still looming behind me.

  I choose to answer his silent question, if only to move things along. This is awkward.

  “He works for my dad,” I tell him. “He’s driving me today.” It’s not a lie, but it isn’t the truth either. It’s of no consequence who Jake Sharp is because, apparently, he’ll be gone soon.

  Once again, a nasty shot of regret pinches my heart, but more significantly, it completely overshadows any fear of facing Seb. I realize in this moment how thankful I am that Sharp is here. Especially now.

  Sebastian steps forward and smiles. “Coffee?” he asks.

  “I don’t think so,” I answer.

  “No?” He looks shocked by my refusal, and it seriously astounds me. What did he think I’d do? Leap into his arms and tell him how much I’ve missed him? I nod my confirmation and watch as a familiar wave of anger flickers across his face. He tries to hide it, and maybe to the outside world he’d succeed, but I’ve seen this forced calmness before. He isn’t fooling me. “Come on,” he croons, stepping forward with a smile in place. “Haven’t you missed me?”

  I don’t get a chance to answer this time. I yelp as I’m swiped from my feet and placed to the side. Sharp takes the door handle and moves toward Seb, who wisely backs up. “Your contact with Miss Logan stops here.” And with that, he slams the door and stalks toward the kitchen, pulling his phone from his pocket.

  I look at my closed front door, then to the entrance of the kitchen, just catching Sharp’s back, still heaving, disappearing through the door.

  What the hell just happened?

  I follow him to the kitchen and find him at the sink splashing his face with water.

  “I thought you were leaving,” I say, frowning at his heaving back.

  “There’s been a change of plan,” he declares.

  Chapter 11

  JAKE

  I slowly stir my coffee as I sit a few tables away from Camille and Heather outside a small Italian café off Kensington High Street while they slurp iced teas and chat like girls do. It’s all I can do not to moan when I hear Heather mention their social event tonight. Saffron’s twenty-fifth-birthday party. Great. More torture in the form of Camille Logan wearing something shit-hot and strutting around a bar while endless men drool all over her. Perfect. Can’t fucking wait.

  She has been noticeably more receptive to my protection since my meltdown in Harvey Nichols yesterday. Her new approach is a surprise, and I can’t figure out if it’s a welcome one.

  The way she looked at me after she’d relieved me of my slippery pill bottle and gave me what I needed did things to me that I’m struggling to comprehend. There was no judgment in her eyes when she helped me. There was nothing but compassion. I’m still questioning whether it was the psychological impact of swallowing that tablet that calmed me, or the peace I siphoned off of her. I tried to figure it out and found myself growing more and more distressed and perplexed by the sense of comfort I got from her comfort. I can’t stop myself from looking at her. I can try to kid myself that it’s my job to watch her, but I’d be lying. I’m not watching her. I’m admiring her—her work ethic, how she’s pulled herself back from the brink of self-destruction, and her determination to chase her dream rather than take the easy path. Like her father’s money, or these investors with other ideas that I’ve listened to her talk about. She’s so fucking strong. Just being around her offers a sense of calm that I know I shouldn’t be taking. She’s not a distraction. She’s a comfort, and I don’t deserve any comfort.

  I lay on the couch last night and came to the solid conclusion that all those factors meant my head wasn’t in the game. So this morning I called Lucinda and told her to find me another job. I was all set to leave Camille Logan behind, along with the confusing feelings she spikes in me, and find another distraction.

  But that all changed the moment I opened the door to her ex-boyfriend. I knew who he was the second I laid eyes on him. I nearly put a bullet in his posh head. The natural instinct to protect her was more primal than duty-driven. I couldn’t ignore it. And I suddenly couldn’t walk away. I’ve seen pictures of Sebastian Peters since his release from rehab, falling out of nightclubs with watery eyes and his jaw tight—all evidence that he’s using again. It seems reading girlie magazines has become part of my job. If I were a lesser man, I’d feel like a pussy.

  His unexpected visit to Camille’s apartment changed my decision to hand her safety over to a replacement in a heartbeat. I saw a flash of menace in his eyes when Camille refused his offer of coffee. He seems like more o
f a danger to Camille than any threats. But I will protect her from both.

  It’s imperative that I train my mind into submission and avoid all situations that have the potential to veer me off the course of professionalism. I’m not going to try and plead that this will be easy. It won’t be. Camille Logan is a beautiful, tempting young woman, and she also has an air of determination and independence that I can’t help but find fascinating. And attractive. My initial conclusions are completely unfounded. She’s no brat. She’s a woman fighting for her independence. She repels her father’s insistence to feed her cash and clearly finds the suppression attached to being his daughter a burden.

  I’ve also silently concluded that there’s a heavy amount of resentment weighing her down. Her life is watched, not only by paparazzi, but now by me, too, though she’s accepted that compliance will make this situation go away a lot faster if she plays ball. There’s no denying she’s attracted to me, and for once I’m not smug about it. I’m also not being an arsehole about it.

  I watch, rapt, as she laughs, so carefree, her cheeks pink, her eyes sparkling. Damn. I quickly avert my gaze, and I’m about to wave the waiter for some ice water when a sharp movement across the road snatches my attention. My mind clears and my muscles engage. I’m immediately on high alert. Narrowing my eyes, I watch, searching the empty space at the alley entrance. There’s nothing now, but there was definitely something.

  I hear the faint chatter of Camille and her friend a few feet away as I shift in my chair, feeling my gun press against my back. My mind’s eye captures snapshots of the surroundings and stores them. My leg muscles flex, ready to engage if they have to. I wait patiently, keeping my attention divided between the girls and the alley.

  Then I see movement again: the head of a man popping out quickly and taking in the scene outside the café before retreating. It’s a brief second, but I file a wealth of information in that brief second. His face, his slight frame, his beady eyes. He’s spying. I’m up and across the road like lightning, my legs feeling good under the strain that’s been absent for too long. I reach the wall adjacent to the café and wait. It’s only a few seconds before his head appears again.

  I grab the collar of his shirt, yanking him from the concealed darkness of the alleyway and slamming him into the wall front forward. Holding him in place with my body, his arms pushed up his back, I ignore the whimpers and yelps.

  “What the fuck do you want?” I hiss in his ear, releasing him a little, then slamming him into the wall again. He stutters and stammers all over the place, trembling under my hold. “Tell me!” I roar, hearing the clicking of a few pairs of heels getting louder and louder behind me.

  Camille.

  My heart speeds up and I turn to find her running across the road toward me. “Stay back!” I bellow, making her skid to a frightened stop. “Stay where you are!”

  The man in my clutches keeps whimpering and whining. The fucking pussy. “I’m sorry,” he chokes.

  “You fucking will be.” I quickly check Camille is doing what she’s told, then whirl him around, keeping his arms restrained behind his back, now pressed into the bricks of the wall. His wide eyes look like they could burst from his head at any moment. Good. “Tell me who the fuck you’re working for, and I’ll let them know why you won’t be reporting back to them.”

  “Jake!” Camille yells, her voice urgent and worried.

  “Just stay where you are!” I shout, not taking my eyes off the scum in my hold.

  “He’s paparazzi!” she yells, coming closer. I take a moment to allow that information to sink in. Paparazzi? I keep my hold, not convinced, and look down, seeing a camera smashed to smithereens on the ground. “He just wants a picture,” Camille says soothingly, her hand coming up and resting on my bicep. I glimpse down, seeing her slender, manicured fingers resting on my bare arm.

  “Paparazzi?” I mumble to her hand, feeling a delicious heat sinking into my flesh.

  “Yes,” she assures me, and I look up to find her smiling a little, trying to pacify me. “He won’t hurt me.” She looks to the terrified man, who I still have pinned to the wall. “Hi, Stan.”

  “Hey, Camille.” His voice is trembling as much as his puny body. “Mind asking this nice gentleman if he’ll let me go?”

  I hear her chuckle under her breath. It’s the sweetest fucking sound. “Sure.” She looks at me. “Would you mind freeing him?”

  “Yes, I would mind,” I snap, thinking of the pictures that were delivered to Camille yesterday. When she moves in a little, looking up at me, I realize she’s cottoned onto my train of thought.

  “I’ve known Stan for years,” she says. “He’s one of the good guys.”

  I assess him again, running suspicious eyes all over his alarmed face. He looks truly terrified. “Who do you work for?” I ask.

  “Freelance. My I.D. is…is…it’s…in my breast pocket.” He stutters and stammers all over the place.

  I help myself to his pocket and pull out his wallet, flipping it open and checking while holding him in place. “Stan Walters?”

  He forces a nervous smile. “That’s me.”

  I pull away, satisfied that he’s no threat, and he flops against the wall, taking his wallet back when I hand it over. I turn toward Camille. “You’re on first-name terms with the fucking paparazzi?” I ask incredulously.

  “Sure.” Camille shrugs and starts collecting the many pieces of broken camera littering the ground. Stan finds it in himself to crouch down and help, constantly darting wary eyes to me. “Stan and I have an arrangement, don’t we, Stan?”

  “We did!” He laughs sarcastically. “I think we need to renegotiate the terms.”

  What the fuck? “I’m sorry.” My hand comes up and rakes through my hair. “What?”

  Camille stands, followed by Stan, and hands all the broken pieces over to him. “He gets his pictures, but only so many a month.”

  “Then why the fuck is he loitering in an alleyway spying on you?”

  “Because he’s had his quota this month. Right, Stan?” Camille fires him an accusing but forgiving look.

  “Right,” he admits guiltily. “Sorry. Bit short of excitement this month.”

  “I’m drinking tea!” She laughs, head thrown back and all. That neck. I blink and suck in air.

  Stan sidesteps that comment and looks at me. I read his mind in an instant. “Don’t even think about it,” I warn with all the threat I mean.

  “But you’re so handsome!” he whines, and then pouts. He fucking pouts at me.

  “No.” I point a finger at his protruding lip. “I swear, if my face appears in any magazine, posed or not, then I’ll hunt you down and kill you. Understand?”

  “But the handsome bodyguard is the most prized accessory these days! And, boy, do you top them.”

  “Fuck off!” I spit, incensed. Accessory? He’s making a fucking mockery of it. “Get out of here.” I dismiss him with a shove to his shoulder and a curled lip.

  Wisely, he dumps all the broken pieces of his camera into his bag and saunters off, flipping an indignant wave over his shoulder as he goes.

  “I’ll replace the camera, Stan!” Camille calls, guilt rife on her lovely face.

  “No, you fucking won’t,” I retort. She’s got nothing to feel guilty about, and neither have I, even after roughing up the little twerp.

  “Are you done?” I ask Camille, turning to find she’s been joined by Heather. She has a miffed look on her face, while Heather is grinning. “What?” I ask, truly flummoxed by Camille’s filthy glare.

  “You could have just ruined my relationship with the press!” She pushes past me and makes her way back to the café, collecting her bag from Heather as she goes. I grit my teeth as the lasting effect of her touch, angry or not, fades.

  I feel Heather’s smirk still pointed at me, so I face her, ready for whatever she might chuck at me, too. “I love how protective of her you are,” she muses.

  I wasn’t expecting that. “Of c
ourse I am. I’m paid to protect her.”

  She scoffs as she turns, shaking her head as she walks away from me. “Open your fucking eyes, big man.”

  What the hell does she mean by that? I’d ask, but she’s out of talking distance too quickly. I wander over, seeing some serious words exchanged as I approach, before both women shut up and Camille gives Heather a quick peck on the cheek. “I’ll see you later,” she says to her friend, tossing a note on the table for the bill, at the same time tossing me yet another filthy look.

  I sigh. What does she want me to do? Wait until someone tries to bundle her in the back of a van before I make my move? I can’t fucking win.

  Camille sashays off and Heather heads the other way, leaving me standing like an idiot between them. My head drops back, my eyes rolling to the heavens. Then I expel a long, fucking annoyed sigh. What I can’t decide, though, is whether I’m annoyed with myself for shooting from the hip, or whether I’m annoyed about the outcome. She’s pissed off with me, and I fucking detest myself for being bothered by that.

  Following Camille to my car, I jump in and find her sitting in the passenger seat, focus rooted firmly forward. I start up the Range Rover and pull out, peeking at her out the corner of my eye as we head off down the road. It’s awkward, the tension palpable.

  “Home?” I ask, taking a left at the top of the street.

 
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JODI ELLEN MALPAS SERIES:

One Night
This Man

 

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